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Riz Ahmed On Rapping, Acting And Being His (Sometimes Shirtless) 'Most Complex Self'

Actor and musician Riz Ahmed spoke with host Audie Cornish in front of a live audience at Murmrr in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Mohamed Sadek for NPR
Actor and musician Riz Ahmed spoke with host Audie Cornish in front of a live audience at Murmrr in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Riz Ahmed is everywhere.

He's on the big screen as the co-star of comic-book blockbuster Venom. He's in a modern Western, The Sisters Brothers. He was the first South Asian man to win an acting Emmy, for his role as Nasir in the HBO drama The Night of.

He's on magazine covers — he might even be your Internet bae.

He's on the mic. As a rapper, he's known as Riz MC. You may have heard him performing spoken-word poetry on The Tonight Show.

It was August 2017, right after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. He'd reworked a piece he'd written 10 years earlier into a piece called "Sour Times."

When I talked to Riz Ahmed in front of a live audience last week at the Murmrr theater in Brooklyn, N.Y., I asked him about that work.

"I didn't perform that for about four years, because I was terrified that if anyone ever heard me say things like that, I might get locked up," he said. "I might get tarred as a terrorism apologist, as a radical. And it's really interesting, the limitations that we place on ourselves. And when I did first rap it to someone, to my friend, and he was like, 'Yo, that's the s*** you should be putting out.' And I was like, 'Really? I've been scared to say that to people.' So ever since then I've reminded myself: It's never a good time. If you wait until there's a perfect time, there's a perfect atmosphere to say something — you should just assume you're always going to piss someone off, and then do it anyway."

Riz Ahmed is 35. He's British-Pakistani. He is Muslim. He's a graduate of Oxford University.

And if an Interviewmagazine photoshoot is to be believed — we projected the photo behind him on stage — he's also something of a Hollywood sex symbol.

"Pretty awkward, man, as you can see," he said.

Interview Highlights

On his role in The Night of

I think there's a kind of duality to it as well, to be honest. What it drew people in with, for some people, was: It allowed them to indulge their fantasies of a dangerous Muslim. But I think what has slapped them in the face with was the realization of our common humanity. And I think that kind of bait-and-switch was actually quite effective.

On the "Typecast as a terrorist" essay that appeared in The Guardian

Basically I think when it starts out, you're asked to play the cab driver, you're asked to play the terrorist; it's the arranged marriage, it's the honor killing, it's that kind of thing. I kind of just made a decision right at the start I wasn't going to do that work. I just wasn't interested in it. That's not why I went into this. And then sometimes that meant going without work, particularly when I joined the industry, which was peak post-9/11 — you know, fear-circus vibes.

And then the Stage 2, after the stereotypical portrayals, I think is: stories that take place on explicitly ethnicized terrain, but aims to subvert those. And that was work that started taking shape when I joined the industry. I was lucky that I was a part of some of those projects — stuff like Four Lions. It's about a group of terrorists, but they're just kind of these loveable dopes. They accidentally blow up bin Laden, and whatever. It just kind of makes you second-guess that maybe a more subversive thought than "they're monsters" is "s***, they're just like us."

And then Stage 3, I thought, is this idea of the Promised Land, you know, where I'm not shackled to my ethnicity, or the roles I'm playing aren't only ones which are very, very culturally specific. And you could look at this as like, playing roles where I could play a guy named Bob or Dave. But the Promised Land isn't just about deracination; it's about getting to this place where it's like, I could also play a character called Nasir. It's not about leaving my identity behind — it's about not just being shackled to a two-dimensional idea of it.

On the precarity of his popularity, and being thought of as a "woke Internet boyfriend"

Ahmed: Two things, I think, to talk about in what you said. First is this idea of kind of embracing your sexuality as a man — as a brown man in particular. That's something that sometimes I feel is, like, a little bit corny. Let's face it; it can be. But I also think it's something that's kind of important to do. Because I think often brown men in our culture, in diaspora, are not allowed to be sexual, sensitive or sensual. They're like either terrorist barbarians that are going to come and eat your kids, or they're completely emasculated and they're not objects of desire at all. You know, I've internalized that dichotomy as well, and in my own mind I never cast myself as the leading guy, or someone who would be desirable in that way. So that's really a process of reeducation and kind of reexamining your self-image to allow yourself to do that, to allow yourself to be that, particularly if you're from a sexually conservative culture. So it's actually something that — I think it's been part of my journey of growth, to allow myself to occupy that space.

In terms of, like, being knocked off Internet pedestals, I mean like, it happens every 10 seconds, doesn't it, you know?

Cornish: And I ask because you do speak out on ideas, right. You're not afraid to go on some talk show and really say what you think about something, and — do you get nervous?

Ahmed: I guess maybe on some level I do feel like: Oh man, maybe there aren't a lot of people like me doing this, so I do feel a certain responsibility to represent or whatever. But coming with that, and speaking to your point of being knocked off of pedestals and disappointing people, you can't ever represent everyone's point of view. The idea that I can ... that any given film given whether it's like Bend it like Beckham or East Is East or The Big Sick or Goodness Gracious Me or The Night of, can satisfy an experience of a billion Muslims around the world, or however many million South Asians there are in America, that in itself is patronizing, and it's an unfair burden to place. But I think the one responsibility you have is to try and be your full self. And that's going to disappoint certain people. I'm not religious enough for certain people, I'm too religious for other people, I've taken my shirt off too much for certain people, I'm not taking it enough for others, you know.

Cornish: No one in this room, of course, on that last one.

Ahmed: I think the main responsibility you have is like, "Look, I'm gonna do me." Like, even when it's scary for me. Even when I'm going out my comfort zone, and I feel exposed, I'm going to be my fullest, most complex self. And in doing that hopefully you inspire other people in power, other people to go, like, "All right, you know, if he's going to look like a d***h*** with his shirt off in that, then maybe I can too."

Connor Donevan, Bilal Qureshi, Joanna Pawlowska and Melissa Gray produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.